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Responses to Critical Errancies

After the posting of my rebuttal (Critical Errancies) to Judith Shulevitz’s "Hobbits in Hollywood" piece, I received a deluge of interesting emails, many of them long and well-considered, a few tart, and all of them supportive of Tolkien. In lieu of a regular column, this time I thought I’d share a selection from the best of these missives.


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I totally agree with you.  It's quite obvious she has no idea what she is talking about.  She reminds me of someone writing to sound artsy and intelligent, but she really is writing about a genre she clearly does not understand.  It is typical for people at this rotten newspaper to pigeon-hole people as a "Roman Catholic" or "conservative" and therefore we should conclude xyz about this person's writing and pay them no real attention.  It is shameless and narrow-minded. 


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The fact that Smaug's "sarcasm" is singled out as a virtue says it all too me.  Only in NYC would that be worthy of praise.


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While I appreciate that everyone is entitled to their opinion, it is clear to me that this article was written to stir the pot and to take something away from a project that Shulevitz didn't personally see any value in.  I know that a lot of the people who might go to see this movie will not have read LOTR and may well be put off after reading such an article in turn possibly miss out on the adventure of a lifetime. The whole article seems to speak from a well founded authority on the subject and will only help solidify in many peoples minds that it's "sad" to enjoy a fantasy world regardless of how well crafted it might be. Very nearly all of what Shulevitz said was fashionable and safe. She seems to refer to the fans of Tolkien as a cult movement, well, something cult suggest to me that there is a hidden quality to it. This is true. It does require some time and a careful eye to truly enjoy Tolkien's work and all I think the movie will do is help more people focus on what a beautiful story LOTR is. So my message to Ms Shulevitz is, if you want to cut your own nose despite your face, fine! But you should not use the soap box to make yourself seem fashionable and cut off everybody's noses! That's not fair.


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Way to go, Turgon!

That was a great critique of an obnoxious "review" of Tolkien's work. But I'm not surprised that the vaunted NYT Book Review sneers so much at Tolkien.  Face it--it is a liberal publication which believes it is too sophisticated for the rest of the world, reacting negatively, no doubt to Tolkien's faith ("we can't possibly have that at the NYTimes!"), his popularity ("millions of the "unwashed" masses love him--so therefore, in our self-important opinion at the Times, his work has no merit!"), and his conservatism.

That aside, I have to take this woman's review with a boulder of salt. Look at all the things she got wrong, starting with her huffy complaint about a teenage actor playing Frodo when Frodo is supposed to be 50 years old.  Clearly, she forgets that Frodo received the Ring on his 33rd birthday--his "coming of age" (for a hobbit).  So, to the world, he'd only look around 18 to 21 in "human" years, anyway.  Then she promptly forgets (that is, if she ever knew) that possession of the Ring prevented him from physically aging in his appearance.

As for Sauron as the villain, why does the writer believe he has to be "amusing"?  Why does "evil" have to be funny?  Is Timothy McVeigh funny?  "I murdered 168 people!  Aren't I hilarious?!"   I'd like to say to the writer:  "Not every "bad guy" (real or imagined) is Smaug the Dragon, dearie!"

She also ridicules the tone of LOTR--I'd venture to say that's because =she= personally didn't like it, and was disappointed not to be fed exactly the same type of tone she had read in =The Hobbit=.  Pardon Tolkien for trying something different!  But I'd venture to guess that if he had kept the same sort of tone in LOTR that was in =The Hobbit=, she would have bitched that he was relying on old tricks!

Her last paragraph is just too much.  It makes no sense at all.  She says of LOTR that "it's difficult to accept its mounting portentousness without protest".  Um...why?  Because =she= couldn't accept it, no one =else= should be able to accept it?  Millions of people have had no problem whatsoever!

"The price of entry into the longed-for past."  Is she forgetting this is a work of fiction?  Does she also forget that historical dialogue (real or feigned) was/is =very= different from the way we speak to each other in the 21st Century, esp. considering who is talking to whom? What is she expecting, say, from Frodo?  "Yo, Gandalf, how's it hangin'"?!

"As a storyteller, he was betrayed by the very pedantry that made his creations memorable."  Don't you just love statements that are completely unsupported by examples?  I'm still trying to figure out what the hell she means.  Exactly =how= was he betrayed?  And, if he was betrayed by "pedantry" (God only knows how), why hasn't his work faded with a whimper into the past as an odd curiosity from an "unenlightened" era?  Why, to tens of millions of people, is it still "memorable?"

"He wandered over to the dark side...."  The "dark side" of =what=?  She makes it sound like Tolkien did something E-E-E-V-I-L.  Like you said, she trots out her =Star Wars= reference to seem hip, but I'll be darned if I can figure out why, because it has no application to Tolkien.  I think she just liked the sound of it.

"He formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself."  This is the most absurd thing in the article.  Preserving literature is "death to literature"?  What an asinine statement! Someone explain that to me.  How does that work?

In any event, Tolkien had no particular self-imposed "mission" at all as a literary preservationist.  At least that was not his motivation in writing what he did.  He wanted, in part, to write a mythology for England, and to try his hand at a very long tale.

Well, as I said, what can one expect from the New York Times Snob Review but claptrap like this?


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A hearty "Bravo" to Turgon for his (her?) rebuttal to Judith Shulevitz's N.Y.Times Book Review article.  Turgon certainly shoot holes through her ridiculous points.  Although I don't know Ms. Shulevitz personally, I would guess that she douches with a lemon. 


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Hmm I have never written in to congratulate nor flame someone for something they wrote on the net.  I read all sides and keep my opinions to myself.
 But after reading your reply to "The New York Times Book Review "  I couldn’t help but laugh and cheer out loud!


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Having just read the Shulevitz article, and Turgon's response, I just had to let you know how much I agree with Turgon. "Literature" is by no means what many of the establishment think it ought to be. Thank goodness too for Tom Shippey, a splendid fellow.


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I just wanted to write to congratulate you on your response to that horrendously pretentious and smug article in the NYT book review.  I heartily encourage you to send it to the Times as a letter to the editor.   You neatly point out that what the article is essentially doing is clothing a simplistic wolf of an argument--at its core, "I don't like fantasy (and probably science fiction, horror, and other "genre" fiction) anymore"--in the
raiment of a pedantic, intellectually-hipper-than-thou sheep.  Exposing this basest kind of artistic criticism for what it is would do all the Times' readers some good.

Thank you for supporting the professor so eloquently!


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Just like you, I found that article totally absurd. But Tolkien had a quote especially for those kind of people :)

"Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works..." -J.R.R. Tolkien


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Thank You for your very enjoyable article. Your defense of literature was as stirring as it was responsible for my yelling "Fuck Yes!" at having read it. I believe in "literature as art" with interpretation best left to the reader. Critics are at most, an annoyance. This one particularly so!


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Go Turgon!

Something happens to most critics as time passes, they become filled with their own self-importance, and erroneously believe that a) their opinion is somehow more relevant than any one elses, and b) people care what they think.

I never understand the movie critic that believes it is somehow relevant to measure "Star Wars" (or even "Pulp Fiction") against "Citizen Cane" as if any movie that ISN'T "Citizen Cane" is somehow lacking.

So too with literature.  Clearly Shulevitz measures Tolkien against those whom (as you so aptly put) she puts in the "Box" of "Literature" and obviously chooses to put it outside that box.  To what end?

Clearly, LOTR and The Hobbit are two of the most popular books of the 20th Century, a fact which I'd guess makes Ms. Shulevitz break out in hives!  It has relevance to thousands that I'm sure books on her "top10" list probably will never achieve.  Clearly here is yet another critic who's own taste is so far out of the mainstream that she is left
dumbfounded how everyone ELSE doesn't see things the way she does!

In high school, we were forced to read "A Separate Peace" and "Catcher in the Rye" and to this day, I'll never understand a) Why someone would take the time to write such crap and b) why people think so highly of it as to make every teenager read it for decades.  I struggled to finish them while taking every spare moment to find out, for the first time, if Frodo ever completes his great task.  Now, I know that "popular" entertainment will always have a wider audience than artistic and historically relevant material like the above books, but I am greatly relieved to hear that some schools are actually TEACHING
Tolkien in English Lit curriculum these days.  I only wish *I* could have earned credits for reading what I love!

Oh, well.

I can take solace in knowing that Tolkien's name will be remembered for a long time after anyone who remembers the name Judith Shulevitz is long dead!


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It was with great interest that I read the article "Hobbits in Hollywood", and did detect the sound of east coast sneering in the tone of the writer. Coming, as I do, from a "newspaper family", I am familiar with this particular type of "Journalist". If they cease to be a snob they cease to be popular with their snobby friends. And, since no one will read them if they don't have the approval of their friends in the Literary Circles (ooh!), they then heap disdain upon every thing which they review, discuss or otherwise masticate for the over-priced, glossy and expensive rag (er, publication) for whom they are scribbling.

 It is interesting, but not surprising, to note that an east coast liberal Journalist would find LOTR, "dark" and "leaden". The concept of pure evil, as opposed to simply a misunderstanding or lack of maternal attention in infancy, is anathema. In the Journalist's
view Sauron probably just needs psychotropic medication and some counseling and all Middle-earth with be a garden again.

The Good Professor himself wrote in the intro to LOTR that he was only interested in writing to entertain the reader, not to create an allegory or preach or whatever. The Journalist therefore misses the point entirely (whether by chance or design is academic). I
think that we can therefore safely ignore the Journalist and enjoy the works of the Good Professor both written and cinematic. I, myself, am currently rereading the Unfinished Tales.


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Related Links
Special links referenced in this article.
• "Hobbits in Hollywood," - Judith Shulevitz, 04/22/01 NYTimes

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